Why is Leadership in Crisis?

September, 2023

Leaders are struggling. Those who want to not only be successful but also actually f$#king enjoy their jobs need the tools to access an entirely new mindset. 

A report from the 2021 Global Leadership Forecast found that only 11% of the organizations surveyed reported they had robust leadership — the lowest rating in a decade. Meanwhile, in the first five months of this year, 789 CEOs left their posts, up 18% from the 668 who left during the same period in 2022 — a new record for corner-office vacancies. What’s going on? 

Amid accelerating AI technology, an unsettled economy, radical policy shifts, increasing global competition, and a new landscape of remote work, yesterday’s strategies do not work. But, as anyone who has actually tried it will tell you, systemic change is not just difficult — it’s damn near impossible. 

Yet there are leaders who have figured out how to manage today’s complex, concurrent issues. The pandemic offered a stark example. As businesses all over the globe were upended overnight, flexible leaders capable of fostering adaptable environments pivoted. Everyone else failed. The lesson applies no matter the scale or severity of the crisis: Rigid leadership breaks while flexible leadership adapts. 

So how do we learn that? How do we train for it? It sure as hell isn’t by reading one more leadership blog post or watching yet another leadership TED Talk. Incremental adjustments to old systems will never be enough. A transformative shift is needed.

 

Empowering Change

 

“Everybody wants to go from good to great, but it doesn’t work that way — it’s good to ugly to great. That’s how you get the Great.” 

 

– Kevin Gangel, Co-Founder of Unstoppable Conversations

 

To succeed instead of fail, leaders must check their egos at the door and focus on building teams with a set of critical capacities. 

Leadership isn’t about being “the boss” — the one with all the answers who tells others what to do. It’s the opposite. It’s about acknowledging unknowns, nurturing adaptability, and creating an open, authentic culture where both innovation and smart failures are rewarded. Effective leadership powers entire organizations. The result is a culture where having multiple points of view is the norm and problems get solved. 

We can drop the outdated strategies weighing us down through transformative shifts in four areas: communication, openness, authenticity, and adaptability. 

Here’s why these areas are key:

  • Extreme communication is the only way through complexity, creating a culture of intentional transparency that enables the system to incorporate feedback and constantly adjust itself. 
  • Openness requires us to deactivate our egos, allowing us to receive criticism, listen objectively, and hear new ideas. 
  • Authenticity means leaders acknowledge their own impact, including their mistakes, giving others permission to do the same. 
  • Adaptability means creating a culture of “thinkers” who don’t need to be told what to do and can pivot in a shifting environment.

 

Developing Communication & Openness

 

“The only way through complexity is extreme communication. I don’t mean just radical candor, but that kind of intentional transparency about what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, what I’m seeing, so that the system continues to have enough feedback. So that as a whole, it can keep adjusting itself.” 

 

– Vik Maraj, Co-Founder of Unstoppable Conversations

 

Unlike the traditional, linear leadership structure of manager to employee, organizations that develop cultures of forthright, multidirectional communication are able to continually generate new ideas and innovation. Open communication creates both employees and organizations adaptable to change. Why? 

When multiple voices contribute, multiple paths forward can emerge. But getting to success goes beyond just listening to new ideas. You need to actually get out of the way and accept that others’ ideas are just as good as — or better than — yours. Even stating your own perspective before asking for ideas can create an echo chamber. 

A 2023 article in Forbes says one of the most harmful leadership behaviors is drowning out other points of view. Most leaders aren’t very good at recognizing their own well-worn patterns of thinking (“I’m the boss. I’ve got the answers.”), listening before speaking, and hearing when their idea is not the best. But this candid communication fuels a transition toward entirely new ways of operating — and unlocks the system’s ability to achieve what had previously seemed impossible. 

 

“Leaders have been conditioned that they have to have all the answers… It becomes very hard for a leader to include others in their uncertainty because it could give a sense that they are weak or, worse, incompetent.” 

 

– Vik Maraj, Co-Founder of Unstoppable Conversations 

 

When you stop hiding unknowns and weak points, your ego and the fear of appearing vulnerable will come into play. Don’t hide this either. Letting colleagues see you only at your best is bad for business. Acknowledging weaknesses builds connections and trust. These connections in turn build stronger, more motivated teams. 

When we let our egos get in the way of this process, we lose out on an opportunity for growth — both for ourselves and our organizations. Recognizing and accepting our weaknesses opens doorways to change and growth. 

 

What Do Authenticity & Adaptability Look Like?

 

“The Achilles heel of all human beings – and particularly leaders – is that they don’t have an authentic relationship to their weaknesses. Therefore, they can’t really grow because acknowledging and addressing weakness is where the most growth comes from.” 

 

– Vik Maraj, Co-Founder of Unstoppable Conversations

 

The leadership cliche of “thinking outside the box” does not come naturally. It requires recognizing the limitations of our own ways of being. That’s difficult on an individual level and even harder when considering an entire organization. 

Every person operates with some level of ingrained behavior. But how often do we think about why we do things the way we do? Here’s an example: It’s been said that cars today are the width they are because of the width of paths laid down for Roman chariots. Just as roads from more than a thousand years ago are still influencing the million-dollar infrastructure projects of today, you’re probably still using strategies based on ideas that date back to the industrial era. Whether we’re conscious of it or not — especially when we’re not — outdated approaches totally kill the possibility of new solutions. 

This means leaders must learn how to recognize and assess default behavior on an individual level and an organizational level as well — examining systems and frameworks, breaking them down to their fundamental elements, and asking tough questions about what is and isn’t working. All easier said than done. For this process to actually work, leaders must address failures authentically and resist the ever-present desire to point the finger and deflect blame. Most change fails because this is not a skill set taught in most training. Leaders blame their predecessors, blame others, or blame themselves for the mess — a pattern so familiar it becomes ingrained. Whichever form it takes, blame is the most useless approach to making sense of failure. It is also the most used approach.

Instead, leaders must recognize their own default approaches, own the situation, and navigate the shift away from outdated paradigms, like blame. But how do we do the opposite of what we have habitually done for decades?

A 2017 article in Forbes suggests that to gain flexibility, leaders should learn to “practice non-default behaviors.” In other words, if you’re naturally critical, be accepting. If you’re fiercely independent be collaborative, etc. Reading this, you might think (like we do), “Sure, so just be an entirely different person — easy!” As helpful as it is for “experts” to write suggestions like this in an article, the obvious problem very few of these experts address is how. How do leaders create entirely new ways of leading when the grip of their current patterns is so strong — and especially when they have evidence that these behaviors are exactly what’s led them to past success? What leaders need to do is damn obvious to almost everyone with half a brain — collaborate, share, listen, empower. The real question, the hard question, has always been how. How is the only thing worth dealing with. It is the only thing we deal with at Unstoppable.

Underlying all of this is the need for leaders who can do what is incredibly difficult: Put the desire for recognition aside and empower those around them. Employee empowerment “can have a significant impact on employee satisfaction, productivity, and engagement,” according to The Society for Human Resource Management. In fact, many businesses only survived the pandemic because they shifted to a model of employee empowerment. This model will enable you not only to transform your own thinking and behavior but also discover and invigorate the hidden strengths and passions of your teams, creating an environment where ideas can propagate. 

Awash in complex issues, successful leaders don’t waste energy treading water. Nor do they indulge in the regurgitated and repackaged advice of the “experts”. Successful leaders know the current of change is constant, so instead of fighting against it, they use it to propel their teams and their organizations forward. They commit to discovering how to create a culture of communication, openness, authenticity and adaptability — cornerstones of effective leadership today. 

 

Want to learn more about Unstoppable’s theory of change and leadership? 

Join us for an  upcoming free webinar.

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